The wins came first. The recognition and respect gradually followed.
Through it all, the Fort Dodge baseball team always reminded themselves that no one believed like they did from the beginning.
The fourth-ranked (Class 4A) Dodgers played with the usual chip on their shoulder here Wednesday night, solidifying their stance as legitimate state contenders with a resounding 7-2 victory over Sioux City East in a substate final at red-coated Rogers Park.
This was a landmark triumph in more ways than one for head coach Matt Elsbecker's squad. Fort Dodge (34-7 overall) tied a program record for wins, equaling the total of the 1989 Dodger ballclub that placed second at state. FDSH is Des Moines-bound for the third time in four seasons and fifth since 2005 under Elsbecker despite being unranked in the preseason and graduating seven senior starters from last summer's semifinal lineup.
''Our seniors have been saying from day one that they felt like they had something to prove. They felt just as capable as any of our other (state qualifiers) and wanted to show that on the field,'' Elsbecker said. ''Now here they are. There's something to be said for that mentality, especially if you continue to work hard to back it up - which they've always done.
''These guys trust each other from the top to the bottom of this roster. That's something special. When conventional wisdom said they couldn't do it, they were there to answer the call. And they've been justifying themselves more and more throughout the course of the year.''
FORT DODGE 7, SIOUX CITY EAST 2
Fort Dodge 021 040 0 - 7 9 1
SC East 000 101 0 - 2 4 1
Will Gormally (W, 6-3; 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K) and Devon Harms; Dom Thompson-Williams (L, 6-3; 4 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 0 K), Jake Westphal (2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K), Trey Lapke (1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K) and Trey Lapke. LOB-Fort Dodge 7, East 4. DP-East 1. 2B-FD: Devon Harms. 3B-FD: Tommy Halligan; East: Taylor Pluim. HR-FD: Isaac Lehman; East: Tyler Franko. SF-FD: Austin Halligan. S-FD: Tyler Vaughn.
Senior Will Gormally went the distance on the mound, while the Dodger bats continued to produce up and down the order in every which way. Senior Isaac Lehman homered and junior Devon Harms delivered three hits for the CIML Iowa Conference champions, who will now face West Des Moines Dowling (31-10) in a quarterfinal matchup on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. inside Principal Park.
''I honestly feel like we put more time into preparing for this season than anyone else out there,'' said Gormally, an Iowa Central recruit and one of four regulars returning from last year's ballclub. ''We knew there were doubters out there, and that they probably didn't even see this coming when we got off to a good start. That was fine by us.
''We have good chemistry and are a lot more worried about each other than any individual numbers or records. It feels great to know that we're going to get another chance at state.''
Lehman broke the ice with a deep home run to right field, making it 1-0 in the top of the second against the Black Raiders (34-9). Gormally came through with an RBI single later in the frame, and Fort Dodge plated another run in the third to go up 3-0.
It was 3-1 in the bottom of the fourth after Gormally surrendered a one-out, run-scoring triple to East cleanup hitter Taylor Pluim. The southpaw stranded Plum at third, though, by inducing a groundout and getting a strikeout.
The Dodgers then exploded for four insurance runs to pull away in the fifth. Junior Tommy Halligan tripled to bring home senior Sam Edwards, and Lehman followed with an RBI single.
Harms then ripped a run-scoring double for a 6-1 advantage, bringing a raucous crowd of over 1,000 fans to their feet.
The big inning chased blue-chip Black Raider prospect Dom Thompson Williams (6-3). The junior left-hander allowed five earned runs in four-plus innings.
All nine FDSH batters reached base at least once. Lehman, Harms and Edwards were on three times each in four at-bats, as the Dodgers eliminated East in a substate final for the third time in four years.
Gormally didn't walk a batter and struck out four, improving to 6-3 on the season.
The Black Raiders had won 22 of 23 overall before last night's contest.
''Our mentality was just to be aggressive, and out-work and out-execute the other team. No different than usual,'' Lehman said. ''It was great to get the momentum going with (the homer early), but honestly, I just wanted to reach base however I could to get a big inning started.
''Our lineup is solid 1-9. We all put the ball in play and do whatever it takes to advance the runner or bring runs home.''
''We all have the same mentality: get on base, whether it be with a hit or a walk or whatever, bunt the runners over - just do the little things that can be the difference between winning and losing.
''We're like brothers. To be able to go through this together - it's amazing.''
After the final out, Dodger players rushed the field and landed in a pile just in front of the pitcher's mound. Elsbecker was then doused with ice water as the celebration spilled into the outfield.
The FDSH coach is now 112 games over the .500 mark in the last eight seasons after being 50 under in his first three years at the helm.
''The winning culture that these kids have created here as time has passed - I'm very proud of that,'' Elsbecker said. ''These guys expect to be successful. They know it doesn't happen overnight, or if they just show up at the field. They've watched the guys here (graduated players congratulating this year's team afterward) do it the right way and now they do it the right way - the Dodger way.
''Someone had a picture from eight or nine years ago of me shaking hands with some our (current) seniors when they were in third or fourth grade and being introduced as a future Dodger (at McNeil Field). That's what it's all about. We've come a long way since then, but no matter what has happened, we have been and always will be a family.''